Great and Least in the Kingdom of Heaven – A Life of Discipleship

Sermon on the MountWhile discussing eternal rewards in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1-2, 12, 46; 6:1-6, 16-18), Jesus taught there would be varying degrees of placement in the kingdom of heaven. In Matthew 5:19, Jesus said, “whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” In this verse, Jesus talked about two kinds of saved people, both of which will be “in the kingdom of heaven.” This is plainly understood from what Jesus said. The first group will be believers who, after salvation, live a life of disobedience to God, rebelling against His Word, and teaching others to do the same. These disobedient-to-the-Word believers will forfeit eternal rewards and have a low status in heaven. Jesus calls them least, which translates the Greek word ἐλάχιστος elachistos, which refers to being “the lowest in status, least…being considered of very little importance, insignificant.”[1] The second group of believers will be those who live a life of obedience to God, learning and doing His Word, and teaching others to do the same. These obedient-to-the-Word believers will be rewarded by God and be blessed with a high status in heaven. Jesus calls these great, which translates the Greek word μέγας megas, which in this passage refers to being “great in dignity, distinguished, eminent, illustrious.”[2] This gradation of status in heaven is taught elsewhere by Jesus (Matt 11:11; 18:1-4; 20:20-28). To be clear, Jesus is not addressing salvation in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7); rather, He’s addressing the demands of discipleship and rewards.

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_073To explain further, let me draw a distinction between the gospel that saves and the life of good works that should follow. From the divine side, our salvation was very costly: it cost God His Son. Jesus willingly bore our sins on the cross and paid our sin debt in full (Mark 10:45; John 10:18; 1 Pet 2:24). He died in our place, “the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Pet 3:18). At the cross, God judged our sin as His righteousness requires, and saves us, the sinner, as His love desires. From the human side, salvation is very simple: believe in Christ as Savior. We obtain our entrance in heaven when we simply believe that “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). God’s free gift of salvation comes to us by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Eph 2:8-9; Tit 3:5).[3] Our salvation comes only through Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). The apostle Peter confirmed this, saying, “there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).[4]

When we trust in Christ as Savior, we are “justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24). No human works are required for us to be saved. Scripture reveals we are “not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal 2:16; cf. Rom 3:28). Our good works will never make us righteous before God, “for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal 2:21). Once saved, God calls us to learn and live His Word (2 Tim 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2) and to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called” (Eph 4:1). As His children, God wants us to grow up spiritually and produce good works (Eph 2:10; Tit 2:11-14). But pursuing spiritual maturity does not mean we’ll reach sinless perfection, as that will never happen in this life (Eccl 7:20; 1 John 1:8, 10). Rather, it means we handle our sin a biblical manner. For further information, see my article, Restoring Fellowship with God).

Salvation cost us nothing. Jesus paid it all. But discipleship will cost us everything. It’s radical. It means nothing less than turning our lives over to God and letting Him direct us in everything. Discipleship is worked out over our lifetime. It starts with an epistemological paradigm shift in which we learn to see life from the biblical perspective. The constant and careful study of God’s Word will unseat a lifetime of destructive human viewpoint and replace it with divine viewpoint. The benefit is a life of meaning, purpose, and blessing as we lay hold of the spiritual assets God has for us, for He “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3). This blessed life starts at a moment in time in which we submit ourselves to the Lord (Rom 12:1-2), and continue our advance to spiritual maturity by learning and living Scripture (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18). However, just as God does not force us to be saved, neither does He force us to live in obedience to Him. Sadly, there are many believers who refuse to be the Lord’s disciples, and these choose to live in conformity with the world around them. The believer who chooses to be a “friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jam 4:4). Furthermore, he places himself under divine discipline (Heb 12:5-11), which can eventuate in physical death if his rebellion continues (1 Cor 11:30; 1 John 5:16). For further explanation of this truth, see my article, The Sin unto Death.

layingcrownathisfeetLet’s get back to the subject of rewards. As Christians, we know there will be a future time in which we will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Paul said, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). This judgment seat evaluation is not to determine whether or not we get into heaven. That has already been made secure by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. This judgment seat evaluation pertains solely to eternal rewards. And these rewards are determined by how we live in accordance with God’s revealed will in Scripture. The obedient-believer will produce a life of “gold, silver, and precious stones” which all survive the test by fire and will go with us into eternity (1 Cor 3:12). The rebel-believer will produce a life of “wood, hay, and straw” which will not survive the test by fire and will be burned up (1 Cor 3:12). The quality of work produced by the obedient-believer will remain and “he will receive a reward” (1 Cor 3:14). The quality of work produced by the rebel-believer will be burned up and “he will suffer loss” (1 Cor 3:15). Though the rebel-believer has no rewards, “he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). For more on this subject, see my article, Future Christian Rewards.

In summary, salvation is free and simple. It’s free to us because Christ paid our sin-debt in full. And it’s as simple as believing in Christ as our Savior, trusting that His death, burial, and resurrection forever satisfied God’s righteous demands toward our sin. However, after salvation, God calls us to a radical life of obedience. How we respond is up to us. If we disobey God’s Word and teach others to do the same, then we’ll experience discipline in this life, forfeit heavenly rewards, and will forever be classified as “least in the kingdom of heaven.” However, if we obey God’s Word and teach others to do the same, we shall obtain God’s approval in this life, earn heavenly rewards, and will forever be called “great in the kingdom of heaven.” I implore you as a Christian writing to Christians—choose the life of discipleship. There’s no better life to be lived, and the rewards in heaven will be worth it! Let’s be great together!

Dr. Steven R. Cook

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[1] William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 314.

[2] William D. Mounce, Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1207.

[3] Grace means God gives us what we don’t deserve. He is gracious and offers to forgive and save us forever, not because we deserve it, but because He is gracious and kind. Faith means we believe God at His word concerning our salvation. Faith does not save. Christ saves. Faith is merely the means by which we receive God’s free gift. In Christ alone means we trust in Jesus and no one else to save.

[4] Heaven is made possible by the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the only Person to have ever lived a perfect life in the Father’s sight as He fulfilled the Law perfectly (Matt 5:17-18). There was no sin in Jesus (2 Cor 5:21; Heb 4:15; 1 John 3:5). Everyone else, without exception, is guilty before God (Rom 3:10, 23). And we are helpless to save ourselves (Rom 5:6). All who trust in Him as Savior are forgiven all their sins (Eph 1:7), receive eternal life (John 10:28), and God’s gift of righteousness—His righteousness—which is imputed to them (Rom 4:4-5; Phil 3:9). At the moment we trust Christ as our Savior, we are rescued “from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14). As Christians, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). We are saved from spending eternity in the Lake of Fire (Rev 20:15).